Missing the shot is the photographer’s equivalent of a fish story. We all have stories about the one who got away. You miss the moment, or the focus shifts, or you had the wrong shutter speed, or Martians landed and stole your subject.
There’s a mindset that if a picture isn’t perfectly in focus, it’s a loss. Over the years I’ve learned that sometimes those missed shots can be the most valuable shots you have. That missed shot could be the last image of a loved one. It could capture a special moment. Even when blurred, the photo will evoke memories.
One of my all time favorite images is a miss. While at the opening of the World War 2 Memorial in Washington DC in 2004, I fired off a quick shot of this Vietnam Vet.
Auto focus caught the shoulder of his buddy behind him, throwing him out of focus. I didn’t realize it at the time. As was and is my habit, I walked up to this man to thank him for his service. With tears in his eyes, he pulled me into a hug and said, “thank you.” Then he walked away. His friend hugged me as well. “Thank you. You are the first person who’s ever told him thank you for his service. It means a lot.” Then he walked away.
I was rocked by that simple statement. Nearly 30 years after the war, this man hadn’t been recognized for his sacrifice. He was just starting to heal from the war. I hit me hard. So hard that I forgot to get his contact info to pass along a copy of the image I’d just snapped.
I got home that night and started going through the images. I groaned when I realized that one of my favorite moments was less than perfect. Great, just great, I blew the focus. I stared at the image a while, hoping it might magically shift into focus.
It did. The more I looked, the more I realized how much this image represented what happened post Vietnam. Thousands of veterans, moving through life on the edges, just out of focus.
For a moment, I pulled this man into focus. Then lost it again. Lost, but not forgotten.